Photography & Hunting

In landscapes shaped by humans, meeting the needs of people is key to conserving not just elephants but all wild animals.

Story by


Tyler Sharp

Read Time

16 minutes


I was driving my trusty old 4×4 Toyota Hilux on a familiar dirt road in the Kunene Region of Namibia when a movement caught my eye. Through the trees and clouds of dust, an elephant was moving toward a watering hole for a drink just before sunset. Slowing to a stop where there was a better view, I noticed a few tourists who had also spotted the gray giant and were filming him from a safe distance while standing outside their vehicle. 

This was a special elephant sighting for a number of reasons. Firstly, this particular bull elephant occurs in an arid part of what is a generally dry country. Their ability to survive in these harsh conditions has earned them the nickname “desert elephants,” although scientists prefer the term “desert-adapted elephants.” The second reason this was special, from the tourists’ perspective, was that the elephant was roaming on unfenced land where there were few official rules. They were therefore able to get out of their vehicles (strictly forbidden in Big Five National Parks) and find a perfect vantage point from which to view the animal. 

This elephant sighting was a form of photographic tourism, and I knew that we were in an area where elephant hunting was allowed. At face value, this sighting shows that hunting and photographic tourism can indeed work in the same area, although this is hotly debated both within Namibia and around the world. Why can’t we just enjoy watching elephants, without putting a price on their heads? Why does anyone have to shoot them? These are simple questions, but the answers are far from straightforward — one first needs to understand where the humans fit into this picture. In landscapes shaped by humans, meeting the needs of people is key to conserving not just elephants but all wild animals.


Like the tourists, I enjoyed the sight of a free-roaming desert elephant, but I had gained a different perspective on the situation during the years preceding this event. I am a conservation biologist who was employed to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the area. I was not just touring around looking for wildlife and enjoying the spectacular desert landscape (undeniable perks of the job), but on my way to visit the offices of a communal conservancy. These conservancies were initially set up by the local communities so that they might benefit from the wildlife they live with, including elephants. These benefits flow from two primary sources: photographic tourism and what Namibia calls conservation hunting.

As I watched the scene unfold before me, I witnessed something that few people consider when they think of desert elephants — the cost of living with them. This particular reservoir was not built, and the water in it was not pumped for the benefit of elephants. The local farmer pumped this water for his goats and cattle, which were trying to access the water trough at the same time as the thirsty elephant. With loud trumpeting and stomping feet, the elephant scattered the livestock in all directions. Once satisfied that it could drink alone, it quenched its incredible thirst — one elephant can drink up to 50 gallons of water each day. 

In a desert landscape, water is a precious resource that must be pumped from underground aquifers. This particular pump was diesel-powered, which means that the farmer must pay for every gallon of water the elephant drinks before his livestock even get to the trough. If the reservoir does not have water in it when a thirsty pachyderm arrives, the frustrated elephant might break reservoir walls, rip water pipes out of the ground and trample livestock to death. The farmers here have begrudgingly learned to keep their uninvited guests well watered or suffer the consequences.


This is why monetary benefits from wildlife are so important — no one would tolerate dangerous, sometimes badly behaved wild animals on their land without obvious incentives. The tourists who jumped out of their car to film the elephant certainly placed great value on the sighting, but did their visit to this particular area contribute to the farmer who provided the water? It’s unlikely. This conservancy did have a nearby campsite, but that was all but defunct, and the conservancy did not yet have a lodge on its land. Wherever these people were staying, it would not be nearby, and their tourist dollars would go elsewhere. 

However, hunting tourism supported this conservancy in the absence of camps and lodges, while providing a reason for its members to tolerate the elephants. Unlike the photo tourists, international hunting tourists come for a different experience. They do not need a lodge or even a well-serviced campsite with Western amenities like flushing toilets. Hunting operators can bring their clients to a rustic camp with no running water, as the promise of a challenging hunt is enough to attract them to this place. 

Since that experience, the conservancy has renovated their campsite and now has a new lodge, thus bringing much-needed employment and income. Hunting continues in a different part of the conservancy from where the lodge is located. The people living here see no reason why tourism and hunting cannot both contribute to their conservancy and thus help them to better coexist with elephants. Despite their losses, they are not against elephant conservation and are involved in the process of setting sustainable hunting quotas for all of the wildlife on their land. In the case of elephants, long-term monitoring using internationally accepted aerial survey methods has shown that their numbers are increasing in Namibia. As long as the lodge and hunting operators pay according to their contracts (and the latter abide by the quota), employ local people, and distribute the meat from hunting as agreed, why should they choose one over the other?


This is a question that must be answered by anyone who wishes to ban the hunting industry, particularly in a country where both wildlife-based industries are considered to be important. Taken together, the 86 communal conservancies in Namibia earned just over 25% of their income from hunting and 62% of it from photographic tourism during 2019 (before the effects of COVID-19).6 Conservancies in the mountainous desert landscape in the west that host desert-adapted elephants, rhinos and lions tend to attract more photographic tourists than those in the bushy, flatter, eastern parts of the country. Consequently, some western conservancies would continue to operate in the event of a hunting ban, while nearly all of those in the east would no longer be able to cover their operating costs. Yet the northeastern conservancies provide critical wildlife corridors in a larger transboundary conservation landscape and host more animals than the arid west. These conservancies are therefore important for both Namibian and broader regional conservation. 

As a consequence of colonialism, Namibia has two types of land tenure — the communal lands described above and private lands. The ownership of communal lands is vested in the state, while its use is governed by a combination of regional government and traditional authorities. It is generally unfenced, and livestock graze between the villages. Land that is far from the villages is usually zoned for wildlife as part of a conservancy’s management plan, although there is no fence keeping the wild animals and livestock apart. 

The private lands are generally fenced, either with low livestock fences (four feet high) or high game-proof fences (six feet high). Common game species like kudu, gemsbok and springbok can cross the livestock fences and are legally used by farmers as an extra source of income or protein besides their sheep or cattle. These farmers, therefore, have no problem with wildlife living alongside their livestock. 

Farmers who want to specialise in game production install high fences and import game. The higher fence ensures that they will not lose their investment to nearby farmers (according to law, any game on your land belongs to you). The higher-value game species (e.g., Sable antelope) and higher densities of game on the property allow the farmer to sell high-value trophy hunts, adding value to that property. These private game farms are able to generate ten times more money than hunting on communal land, thus contributing significantly to the economy, growing at a faster rate than livestock farming. Often these areas were previously cattle farms, and the value of game provides the economic incentive to revert back to native species and habitat management. Some farmers on private land have combined their properties by dropping the intervening high fences as part of mutually beneficial management arrangements known as freehold conservancies. 

On both communal conservancies and private farmlands, hunting provides a tangible value to wildlife. Hunting for meat requires no capital investment, as local meat hunters do not need special accommodation or other facilities, so even farmers who do not specialise in game farming can see the value of wildlife and encourage these animals to stay on the property. More capital is required to prepare for international hunting clients (who at least require a campsite, if not a small lodge), although as noted above, this is generally less than the investment required for photographic tourism (well-functioning campsites or lodges are essential, along with better transport infrastructure). 

Some conservancies and private farms may never be suited to developing the photo tourism industry because they are too remote, their land is not camera-friendly (e.g., there is extremely dense bush), or they do not support the kind of wildlife that attracts photographic tourists. For those located in areas that could attract photo tourists, hunting can be used as a stepping-stone toward photographic tourism, which can generate higher financial returns, albeit with considerably higher footfall. Smaller farms or conservancies might then consider switching entirely to photographic tourism, if this suits their purposes. Even in these cases, some animals may be culled or sold live at game auctions to prevent the overpopulation of prey species and subsequent land degradation (particularly on fenced properties). 

Photographic and hunting tourism are therefore not considered competitors in Namibia. They are both part of a wildlife-based economy that has resulted in large increases in wildlife populations over the last few decades, from an all-time low of about half a million wild animals in the 1960s to about 3 million in the 2010s. Elephant and rhino populations have experienced strong recoveries since 1995 (elephants have tripled in number, and rhinos have similarly rebounded), and much of that recovery has been due to conservation outside state-protected areas. While the value of photographic tourism in prime locations easily outstrips the value of hunting, non-photogenic locations may only ever be useful for hunting. If wildlife had no tangible value in these parts of Namibia, it would be eradicated in favour of other more valuable land use options (e.g., livestock, farming). Due to the diverse products derived from game and their natural resilience to drought and parasites, wildlife farming is often more productive than livestock farming even if no photographic tourists ever visit. Besides the primary production of meat and hides, live sales on auctions can fetch high prices, and hunting older individuals as “trophies” can generate substantial income from the judicious use of a few animals. Wildlife is likely to become more attractive in the future as climate change is set to increase the frequency and severity of drought in Namibia, which will make livestock farming increasingly difficult.


On the subject of climate change, the photographic tourism industry emits more greenhouse gases than hunting tourism per dollar earned. Even a small, high-end lodge requires many more visitors per month than a hunting camp to turn a profit. Boutique tourism lodges will entertain 12-16 guests per night, and budget lodges will host up to 100 or more, contrasting with hunting safaris which are typically exclusive to one or two clients staying for several weeks. The extra fees that hunters pay for the animals they take (including trophy fees, permits, taxidermy, etc.) generate more income than accommodation alone, and these fees contribute to government conservation bodies and local people, rather than just the operator who accommodates them. A few hunters flying into Africa thus provide the equivalent income of a busload of photographic tourists. 

The use of resources on the ground is a concern whenever large numbers of people are hosted in one place. Water is a precious commodity in semi-arid countries, and large lodges have much greater water requirements than small hunting camps. Further, over-tourism can become a problem in tourist hotspots, putting strain on the existing infrastructure and disturbing wildlife and damage-sensitive ecosystems. 

Nevertheless, many African National Parks are funded solely through photographic tourism. Tourism contributed an estimated US $194.2 billion to African economies in 2018 (i.e. pre-COVID), an estimated 8.5% of the continent’s GDP. Photographic tourism thus remains a key contributor to wildlife economies all over the continent and provides an incentive for continued conservation. Considering these two industries from a distance by comparing their relative contributions to GDP and employment alone would tip the balance in favour of the larger and more labour-intensive photographic industry. However, such a comparison misses the point entirely and ignores the real-life complexity faced by people who live with wildlife. The two industries have different requirements in terms of economic investment and local situations (e.g., location, attractive scenery), they leave different impacts on the environment, and the income generated from them flows in different ways through the economy, so they are not easily interchangeable. Rather, they are complementary ways of generating income from natural habitats and indigenous wild animals, thus jointly supporting biodiversity-friendly forms of land use.


While carbon footprints and over-tourism are concerns for the photographic sector, hunting tourism in Africa is not perfect either. The concerns in this industry often relate to biological sustainability and the thorny but important issue of ethics. In terms of biology, setting sustainable harvest quotas for game species that are easily monitored is straightforward and generally uncontroversial. Predators are more difficult to count and have more complicated social structures, creating a cascading effect that goes beyond the initial hunt — for example, if a male lion is hunted when the cubs in his pride are still young, the new male could kill all of these cubs when he takes over the pride. Elephants have even more complicated social structures and intense behavioral responses to hunters. This has the potential to increase their aggression toward humans and lead to further human-elephant conflict, if hunts are not managed with these issues in mind (e.g., by not hunting close to villages whenever possible). 

The ethical issues are amplified from plains game to predators to elephants. In the Western cultures where most international hunting clients originate, people abstain from eating predators and elephants (the same is not always true among African cultures). Further, they are assigned greater value among the non-hunting and hunting communities alike. The social pressure to stop hunting these species is therefore many times greater than the pressure to stop hunting plains game. Consequently, hunting big cats and elephants is subject to enormous scrutiny. Anti-hunting groups use the perceived unethical hunting practices involving these species (even if they are technically legal, such as bow hunting lions in Zimbabwe) as part of their efforts to ban hunting altogether.

Dangerous, majestic species, such as lions and elephants, are also the most likely to come into severe conflict with people, so banning these hunts may result in even less tolerance for these animals than currently exists. In some countries, including Namibia, declared problem animals may be hunted by international hunting clients at a discounted rate (these individuals are not necessarily trophy animals, and no export permit is made available for skins, skulls, etc). This system allows the affected people to benefit from an animal that has caused severe recent conflict, but it is possible that the wrong animal could be hunted accidentally or purposefully (e.g., a good trophy animal taken instead of the one causing the problem). Hunting’s effect on human-wildlife conflict is nuanced, complicated and controversial.


Operators in both of these wildlife-based industries often claim that they are conservationists. However, their positive impact on conservation depends on how they operate. Conservation-oriented operators in both industries adhere to best practices and make lasting contributions to local livelihoods and wildlife conservation. Policy makers and most conservation organizations in southern Africa understand the role both of these industries play in the broader wildlife economy and in mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Rather than calling for blanket hunting bans or placing undue restrictions on either industry, we are keenly interested in making them truly conservation-oriented using incentives wherever possible and legislation when necessary. 

Voluntary associations of operators in both the photo tourism and hunting industries strive for the same goal as conservationists by promoting biodiversity conservation through the sustainable and wise use of natural resources that will ultimately benefit people and wildlife. For example, Tourism Supporting Conservation (TOSCO) is an association of Safari tour operators (i.e. those that do not have lodges) who support Namibian communal conservancies in various ways. The Namibian EcoAwards association of lodge companies voluntarily subject their operations to independent scrutiny and public rating of their lodges’ environmental impacts. Professional hunting associations that operate within African countries expect their members to maintain high ethical standards and contribute to scientific research on species that are difficult to monitor, such as leopards in Namibia.

Unfortunately, it is not compulsory for either photographic or hunting operators to be members of these associations in order to do business. One step toward better conservation is to weed out unethical operators whose negative impacts are greater than their contributions to conservation by making membership in one or more relevant associations a legal requirement. Another option is to increase public awareness of these associations and of true conservation-oriented business practices in these industries. Although the former option is entirely up to African governments, the latter can be achieved through the media to promote true best practices to potential tourists. 

Ultimately, both photographic and hunting tourism rely on African natural resources that rightfully belong to African people. Neither industry is necessarily better than the other, and which one will offer the most conservation benefit with the lowest environmental impact depends on a myriad of factors that vary from one place to another. Each local situation, whether it is a private farm or communal conservancy, has its own possibilities and limitations that are best understood by the people who live there. The most useful thing that African and non-African governments can do is to enable both industries to thrive within a policy environment that favours conservation-oriented hunting outfitters and tourism operators. Such policies would allow African people to participate in and benefit from economic activities that support the long-term conservation of their wildlife.

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